When Naomi Biber and Ryan Lay opened the Palace Pub & Wine Bar in Cape Coral in June 2019, they wanted to connect with their hometown’s growing millennial population. For their generation, wine culture was often seen as stuffy or pretentious compared to the laid-back, approachable conversation that had developed around craft beer. “We wanted to unravel the mystery,” says Biber, who was born in Austria. “We wanted it to feel like Europe, where it’s not hard to go out for a glass of wine.” To find interesting bottles to store behind the bar, the couple often traveled to Sarasota or Naples in search of varietals beyond the expected Cabernet and Chardonnay. About a month after opening, they visited Natural Wine Naples. “At the time, we didn’t know what natural wine was,” says Biber. Owner Peter Rizzo introduced the pair to a few approachable bottles, like Redentore pinot grigio from Italy’s northern Veneto region, which Biber describes as “the tastiest pinot grigio I’ve ever had.” Afterwards, the couple brought home a misty bottle of amber grenache from Donkey and Goat, a pioneer of the natural wine movement in California. “The first time you see this wine, you think, ‘What is this? I need to try!’ You can’t even imagine what the flavor profile could be,” she says. “It tasted like the juiciest kombucha, strawberries, and yuzu.”
Intrigued (and with the help of a recommendation from Rizzo’s distributor), the duo added Redentore to their wine list. As they continued to search for new wines, they found themselves drawn to other unconventional bottles. “We were trying absolutely anything and everything,” Lay says. “Much of the wine we had fallen in love with ended up falling under the ‘natural wine’ umbrella.” Although there is no official definition of natural wine, for Biber and Lay the category is characterized by wines of small are from organic farming, use wild yeasts to start fermentation and contain little or no chemical additives. “One thing we explain to people is that wines don’t have to list ingredients [on the label],” he says. “They don’t understand that wine can be as processed as a bag of Doritos.”
Beyond the production methods, the branding and vernacular around natural wines aligned with their vision of an approachable and cool wine bar. In the trendy wine bars of Brooklyn or Los Angeles, the tables are strewn with bottles with pop art or cartoon labels. Winemakers and bottle shops on social media are posting photos of stylized bottles with captions you’ll never find in a Robert Parker review. (A recent Palace Pub Instagram post quoted Northern California winemaker Martha Stoumen, who described her white blend as tasting “like a margarita and a light white wine went on a date and got dulce de leche glazed with tamari for dessert.”)
To pique interest in their new wines, the couple placed bottles of Australian natural sparkling (a lightly sparkling sparkling wine that has become the hallmark of natural wines) in a cooler behind the bar. Much like the Donkey and Goat Grenache that piqued their interest at Natural Wine Naples, the crisp, misty pink wine has become a topic of conversation among customers. “We found that people come with friends and try as a group. Most loved it, sometimes there’s one who says, “That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever had,” Biber laughs. “One of the things I love about natural wine is that it stimulates learning. People don’t come to the Palace just for a drink; they come to see something new.
The duo slowly incorporated more natural wines as demand grew, focusing on bottles from smaller European producers, where sustainable farming and minimal handling in the cellar are more common. “In Europe, many small wineries never introduced industrialization as it exists in California,” says Biber. “Some of these wineries have been producing wines for over 500, 600 years. They weren’t going to change what they were doing because the formula was already good.
In March 2020, a week before the COVID-19 shutdown, Palace Pub launched the retail arm of its operation and transitioned its selection to be all-natural. Unlike most wine shops, which are organized by country, the Palace Pub organizes its shelves by body, from cloudy, unfiltered whites to tannic orange wines, dark ruby-colored Italian rosés and rich reds. The layout encourages customers to browse the selection rather than gravitating towards recognizable regions. The same goes for price: bottles typically range between $25 and $35, and behind the bar, most glasses are under $10.
Since transitioning, Biber and Lay have both passed their Level 1 Sommelier exams, and Biber now works as a wine representative for a distributor, having shaped the natural wine-focused listings at Narrative Coffee Roasters of Naples, Ceremony Brewing at Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Remedies Salon. As Palace Pub continues to grow, bringing new bottles from the couple’s favorite producers, they hope to see more people, including older generations, embrace natural wine. “The conventional wine world thinks the natural wine movement is a bunch of millennial hipsters sitting around drinking faulty, imperfect wine. There are plenty of them in New York and Los Angeles, where [natural wine] really took off. It’s not like that here,” says Lays, pointing out that sustainably produced wines can still exhibit classic flavor profiles. “Florida is a new frontier for natural wine.”